COLUMN: MY LIFE AS A WRITER

June 03, 2018

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The tiny woman standing in front of me at the crowded reception turned around and said, “Hello, I’m Pat.” I introduced myself and glanced at the label pinned to her shirt: A.L. Barker. A writers’ writer, who’d been writing for 40 years, but never gained the public attention she deserved. I’d read her books — which were difficult to find in public libraries — and admired them. Above all, I admired her determination to do what she did with no concern for fashion: she was a short story writer and continued to work in that unpopular form, though she’d written acclaimed novels too, one of them nominated for the Booker.

I told her I liked her work and of my love of short fiction, admitting, too, that I wrote stories. Before we parted we exchanged addresses and numbers. In 1988, long before the internet made communication so easy, people often wrote postcards to each other to arrange meetings. Imagine my surprise when she rang just a few days later to ask me to lunch, telling me to bring along some of my stories.

The lunch was pleasant. She gave me a couple of her signed books and went off with my typescripts which I’d selected from the growing pile on my desk — one a retold folktale and the other a more conventional short story.

My surprise when I received a letter from her some days later was overtaken by consternation when I saw that she hadn’t understood a thing I’d written. Both stories had already been accepted for publication, so I’d handed them to her with a degree of confidence. I was already published, albeit sparsely; it wasn’t as if I’d wanted her to help me find a home for the stories or tell me how to restructure them, which is what she assumed. I suppose all I’d wanted was an affirmative response from a writer I’d admired and whose interest I’d accepted, mildly flattered. Instead I received what many today would call an orientalist reaction to stories that were set in Asia, full of comments about cultural impenetrability and structural defects — surprising from a writer who was known as a maverick. Her reaction was what today I’d call the entirely conventional reaction of a hapless creative writing tutor.

I tell this story as a warning to younger writers who too often feel that their charm, personal contacts or relationships with other writers will help them advance their careers. Yes, other writers do sometimes offer valuable advice and suggestions, but usually only when they’ve read your work and are, perhaps, editing an anthology. Most writers don’t have active influence in the publishing world.

Later, I was to recommend manuscripts by young, and also once-established writers who had fallen off the literary map, to publishers I worked with and a couple of those were published, but more often than not they were rejected for the same reasons that they’d been rejected by others. Another writer’s recommendation is no guarantee of success, unless perhaps it’s a review in a prestigious journal. (Years later, I reviewed Pat’s work in the Times Literary Supplement, much to her pleasure; we’d remained friends.) What we need to learn at a very early stage is to deal with criticism when we risk handing over a piece of unpublished work to anyone; criticism we might accept or reject.

There were certainly a couple of contemporaries in the publishing world who, in the five years between my encounter with Pat and the appearance of my first collection, discovered my work and commissioned stories for journals and for anthologies.

In those days, anthologies around themes such as religion, love and exile were very popular and I was frequently asked to contribute to them.

Ironically, I became used to writing stories on commission. It was a job to be done rather than the indulgence that I’d once considered writing fiction to be.

Ironically, I became used to writing stories on commission — my primary occupation was teaching Urdu, history and English literature on two different university campuses. I also frequently reviewed fiction for journals, which encouraged the commission habit. It was a job to be done rather than the indulgence that I’d once considered writing fiction to be. I say ironically, because I rarely made compromises, using the theme I was given as a challenge to my inventiveness. That attitude often worked and resulted in a few good stories, although I occasionally felt cornered into manipulating my subject matter.

Then came the matter of an agent — that other question I am so often asked about by younger writers. I did, after a difficult experience with the distribution and marketing of my first book, realise that making a profession of writing was arduous if — as I was — you were entirely unsupported. So I signed up with a bright young former editor who’d started her own agency. Most of what she did over about five years was to negotiate slightly higher sums for my stories — a strategy ultimately more to her benefit than mine. After my third book I struck out on my own.

That third book was in a way a coincidence. I spoke to a Pakistani editor — Tyaba Habib — about bringing out a collection of my earlier stories for my growing readership in Pakistan. I’d contributed stories to anthologies edited by Asif Farrukhi and Muneeza Shamsie and written introductions to an omnibus of Bapsi Sidhwa’s novels; I had a good working relationship with Oxford University Press. Tyaba had the excellent idea of including some of the stories from my first collection (unavailable in Pakistan) along with a good selection of new ones which I immediately began to write (the power of commissions). So in 2002 Cactus Town and Other Stories was born, a mix of old and new work and my first book to be published in Pakistan.

There was a gap of nearly five years in which academic duties took over my life, before my next book. Since then, all but one of the books I’ve written have, to my satisfaction, come out in Pakistani editions — on more than one occasion before they appeared elsewhere. While many writers look to the West or to India for publication, I’ve given priority to Pakistan. And when I conclude this piece I’ll be returning to the proofs of my new collection which will be published in Karachi by the end of this year.

The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 3rd, 2018